While incarcerated in a grim Spanish gaol for embezzlement, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra--a weathered old soldier then in service to the Spanish crown as a tax collector--conceived the story of a lunatic knight errant and his peasant squire. Enduring all manner of hardships and setbacks, he set the semi-autobiographical story to paper and thus was born not only a masterpiece of comic writing but the prototype of the modern novel as well.
That first edition of Don Quixote, published in Madrid on this day in 1605, was a huge popular success. In fact, it was such a blockbuster that a spurious sequel quickly appeared by an unidentified author. Undaunted, Cervantes demonstrated his inventive genius by turning disaster into a source of comedy; he published his own sequel writing the interloper into the plot, making fact into fiction just as his hero tried to make fiction into fact. Again, his efforts were rewarded by the wild acclaim of the reading public.
There was little about the life and the career of Cervantes that would have indicated a predilection to a successful literary career--in fact there was little that would have indicated a predilection to any kind of success whatsoever. He was born in 1547 in the Hapsburg domains of the kingdom of Castile, that vast Iberian tableland that would before long be united with the crowns of Aragon, Leon, Catalonia, Valencia Andalusia, Galicia, Asturias, Navarre, and Murcia to become the modern multi-national confederation we call “Spain.” His family had once been proud and influential but had fallen on hard times. Though his childhood was apparently fraught with difficulty, he was able to obtain an excellent education that filled him with aspirations to restore his family’s fortunes. The young Cervantes chose the life of a professional soldier--the surest and quickest path to fame, glory, riches, and royal favor.
Service to the king of Castile led him into the fierce conflict between Christendom and Islam, still raging after nearly a millennium. His participation in the great Battle of Lepanto, in which the allied forces of Austria, Castile, Aragon, Navarre, Portugal, Venice, Lombardy, Genoa, Naples, and Rome surprisingly crushed the naval superiority of the Ottomans, marked him as a skilled and courageous warrior. During the fierce fighting he was severely wounded, permanently losing the use of his left arm. He was rewarded for his heroism and sent to Naples to recover.
It was there in the warm climes of the Italian renaissance, surrounded by vibrant academies, passionate salons, and literary cenacles, that the young soldier steeped himself in the writing of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Bembo, and Aretino. He also became familiar with the innovative chivalric chapbooks written by Boiardo and Ariosto, whose style that would greatly influence him later in life. Once he had regained his full strength, Cervantes was assigned minor administrative duties that allowed him to continue to drink deeply from those cultural wells.
Sadly, this refreshing period of his life was cut short when he was captured by Islamic pirates and then sold into slavery in Algiers. For the next five years he was to suffer unmentionable tortures and atrocities in the Saracen prisons. Once again, he displayed exemplary courage throughout the ordeal: he escaped four times and became the tacit leader of the Christian detainees.
When at long last he was freed, he returned to a distressingly inhospitable Castile. His soldiering days were over and so he floated from one odd job to another, never able to stay more than a few steps ahead of the bill collectors. He spent a few years in Madrid and tried to make a living as a playwright. He clearly aspired to the literary life. Failing at that though, he pled the crown for some sort of appointment. It was all for naught. Finally, in desperation he accepted the noxious task of a roving commissary, or auxiliary tax collector. Apparently, Cervantes was entirely unsuited for the task. His accounting was indecipherable, his work habits were inconsistent, and his diligence was suspect. In other words, he was a frustrated writer caught in a dead-end job. When his ledgers failed to add up, he was arrested and charged with fraud. But what was obviously a personal calamity for him turned out to be a cultural accretion for the world.
With time on his hands, Cervantes began to explore life's confrontation between illusion and reality, ambition and satisfaction, romance and rejection, chivalry and economy, achievement and reward, style and substance--all themes that had haunted his long and frustrated life. Woven into the fabric of the tragi-comic tale of the hapless and mad Don Quixote, those themes spring to life into a universal quest for truth, justice, and honor.
The plot of the book is as erratic and as desultory as sixteenth century life itself. Thus, Don Quixote and his faithful sidekick, Sancho, meet with a whole series of unrelated chance encounters, intrigues, and challenges. The adventures--like those in the popular chivalric romances that Cervantes was deliberately parodying--tend to be repetitive and ritualistic in form, involving the hero’s hallucinatory heraldic world, fed by amorous reminiscences, but with sad realities that only others can see. The result is a collage of hilarious ambiguities and side-splitting conundrums.
Interestingly though, unlike so many modern works of comic cynicism--as in the fiction of, say, Woody Allen, Christopher Buckley, or P.J. O’Rourke--the book’s real literary stock-in-trade is not despair. Rather, the deep Christian faith of Cervantes leads him to find order behind the apparent disorder of a fallen world and sanity behind the apparent madness of a fallen race--as in the fiction of, say, Flannery O’Connor, P.G. Wodehouse, or G.K. Chesterton.
The achievement of Cervantes is stunning. With Don Quixote, he changed the shape of literature the world over. When he died in 1616--presumably the same year that William Shakespeare expired--he left a huge void in Spanish letters that has never been entirely filled.
The most accessible translation of this great classic is probably J.M. Cohen’s Penguin Classics edition--although it often over-simplifies complexities in the text, thereby losing a sense of the weight of the novel. For strict and accurate fidelity, the Oxford edition of John Ormsby’s 1885 translation is to be preferred--unfortunately the Victorian phrasing may be a bit awkward for some readers.
Whichever translation you choose however, you’re sure to savor many an hour delving into the glorious enterprises of that intrepid man of La Mancha.